Shadows on A Facebook Wall: When Social Media Obscures Truth (Part 2)
As discussed is part one, truth-games require power and the desire to play with truth. So how does social media impact on their existence and what does this teach us about truth and power? Let us consider our prisoners watching their Facebook walls. If confronted with a new "truth" online and told they're the only ones seeing reality, how should they respond? Surely this new and rare knowledge must be shared before it's quashed?
When confronted with a conspiracy theory online, there's always a chance it could be true, but it's still sensible to ask a couple of key questions:
1. If true, who stands to gain from this?
2. Do those who stand to gain have the power to make the claims happen?
If there is no simple answer to these questions then the conspiracy theory is very likely untrue. But who stands to gain from spreading mistruths? Well, lots of people.
Thanks for the wonders of social media, we all have the power to throw shadows, and we all stand to gain entertainment & attention from a conspiracy theory of our creation going viral. So perhaps a default to scepticism until claims on the internet are proven is healthy... But why don’t we default to scepticism and seek credible evidence? Why do conspiracy theories gain so much sway?
Let's consider a hypothetical conspiracy theory. Our Facebook addict happens upon an article claiming that all pigeons are spies from the country Xenoz, tasked with gathering data for a pending attack. How do they know whether or not this is true?
Let's apply the above questions:
1. If true, what does the nation Xenoz stand to gain?
Xenoz may be well known for seeking to expand their territory through reconnaissance missions. They may want the resources widely available in the Land of the Pigeons but rare in their own territory.
2. Does Xenoz have the power to train all pigeons to spy and then extract data from them?
Xenoz may be a hostile nation with a history of creative espionage projects who would love to carry out such a feat, however, desire and ability are two very different topics. Based on the available information, the level of available technology and the distance between Xenoz and the native home of the pigeons, it is unlikely that Xenoz could stage such avian surveillance.
This exercise leads to the conclusion that it's unlikely this conspiracy theory is true. Whilst it would be beneficial to Xenoz if they could spy via pigeons, they are incredibly unlikely to be technologically able to do so via every pigeon, if any at all.
So why does our hypothetical person find so many viral tweets and articles purporting the pigeon spy theory? Well, whilst agents from Xenoz aren’t walking past the fire in the cave with undercover agent pigeons, there are many other actors that stand to gain from the truth game of creating this illusion. Politicians seeking to discredit Xenoz or just distract citizens from more serious new stories may stand to gain from encouraging puppet masters to put on such a show. Similarly journalists seeking to generate clicks to their news sites may gain from this brand of attention grabbing story. Even a bored teenager who enjoys the thrill of their tweet going viral could stand to gain from spreading the pigeon spy theory, whether they believe it to be true or not.
The ease of communication transfer across the internet, and the rise of social media, empowers numerous agents in creating truth games, without the need for much political or economic power, or even a strong interest in the game itself.
The stubborn nature of conspiracy theorists presented with contradictory ideas, is partially to do with the fact that there is often no identifiable ‘they’ behind the conspiracy. Just a sinister mysterious and powerful puppet master who is difficult to refute. This stubbornness is based on a shadow of reality and it's been common of many widely peddled mistruths, even for centuries after they've been disproved.
Conspiracy theory fueled by truth games are rife on social media. The power at stake is often that of the citizen to avoid interference from the state. Only if there is significant cause for curtailment of civic freedoms can certain authoritarian state actions be legitimately enforced. On social platforms, some seeking to avoid this limitation of personal freedoms seek the power to control their own destiny, whilst others seek the power to create and enjoy chaos: evidence of their agency in a world otherwise out of their control.
Social media makes the small benefits of spreading mistruths and playing truth games accessible to just about anyone and in doing so it subverts our expectations of information. No longer must someone have a good motive and some resource to spread a message. Now it just takes the ability to send a controversial tweet.
A person can even switch cave roles depending on the topic under discussion. A philosopher, physician or physics professor may be a free person walking past the flames in their daily life when operating within their realm of expertise. When they pick up their phone and open Reddit, they may become a prisoner, tethered by their own ignorance and convinced that the conspiracy theories about Xenozian pigeon spies are clearly true. They are smart you see, plus they’ve read several sources.
Shadows on online cave walls are kept alive by those with power. The all too common refusal to turn around and see the figures moving beyond the flames of the prisoners once free, does not nullify the chains limiting so many people’s viewpoints. I'd argue there's reasonable responsibility on those in power to teach critical thinking skills to children so that they can grow into adults able to distinguish shadows from reality.
Social media may be a new development, but the issues of those in power manipulating truth are as old as time. In many ways the key truth visible in our online world is: there's nothing new under the sun.